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Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm - Their Life and Legacy

Updated on April 15, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Great authors and poets of the past have inspired Phyllis to read and write. They have a special place in her life.

Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm on Left, Jacob on Right

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1819–1881)
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1819–1881) | Source

The Brothers

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are famous for the collection of folklore and fairy tales they gathered and adapted for children's literature.

Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm was born January 4, 1785 and his brother, Wilhelm Karl, was born February 24, 1786. They were both born in the Wolfgang section of Hanau, Germany. They had seven siblings, three died in infancy. Jacob was the eldest.

Their father was Philipp Wilhelm Grimm, who was a successful jurist. When Philipp was appointed district magistrate in Steinau, he moved his wife, Dorothea Zimmer Grimm, and the children to his official residence, a large home in the countryside. This was during the formidable years for the brothers (1791 - 1796) and the Steinau home with surrounding fields proved to be their happiest time. It was a prosperous and pleasant time for the whole family. They were prominent members of the community where Phillip's father was a minister. Steinau was Philipp's boyhood home.

In 1796, tragedy struck and changed their lives dramatically. Philipp died and the family had to move to a smaller residence in the urban area. Dorothea and her children were left in a severe financial situation. The only help she received was from her father and sister. At the age of eleven Jacob, with the assistance of Wilhelm, had to take on responsibilities meant for adults - which put a sudden end to their childhood. They turned to their grandfather who advised them to be diligent and hard-working. The grandfather was very adamant on them being industrious and the brothers relied on his sternness.

In 1798, Dorothea's sister financed education for Jacob and Wilhelm. She made the arrangements for them to attend Friedrichs-Gymnasium in Kassel. Their grandfather had died not long before they entered the gymnasium. For the first time they were left with no adult male to rely on. This is where their grandfather's teachings kicked in - they developed strong work ethics and excelled in all their studies. They each graduated at the head of his class.

Further Studies

Jacob and Wilhelm grew very close and had to rely on each other . After graduating from Friedrichs-Gymnasium they both studied at the Philipps University of Marburg. It was here that the brothers were greatly influenced by Professor Friedrich von Savigny. At the time, the brothers were in their early twenties.

Savigny sparked an interest in the past for both Jacob and Wilhelm. This is when they began the linguistic and philological studies that would lead them to their future fame.

Their main study and research was focused on linguistic research. Grimm's Law, named for Jacob, is a collection of statements regarding European as related to Germanic language and linguistics. Out of this time also came editions of their collection of fairy and folk tales, which became extremely popular.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb the golden stair.

- from Children's and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, 1812


Illustration by Johnny Gruelle
Illustration by Johnny Gruelle | Source

Fairy Tales

Their first volume of fairy tales, Children and Household Tales, published in 1812, were stories collected from peasants and villagers of their own area and sources from other cultures. Jacob did most of the research and Wilhelm, more frail of health, set the stories to their literary format, which gave the childlike style to the tales.

The angry fairy's curse: The Princess will fall into a deep sleep for 100 years and be awakened by a kiss from a prince.

Sleeping Beauty and the Prince

A Walter Crane illustration for Sleeping Beauty.
A Walter Crane illustration for Sleeping Beauty. | Source

First Volumes not Suitable for Children

The first volumes of these tales were not regarded by the public as suitable for children due to references of taboo subjects, such as pregnancy, which was at the time a very private issue - so the title referring to "Children's Tales" was criticized. This led to versions of tales more suitable for children, which Wilhelm had adapted.

The influence of the tales portrayed lessons or morals that helped parents educate their children. This had always been one of the purposes of fairy tales. The tale of Red Riding Hood for example has a very strong moral, or lesson to be learned. As Charles Perrault (1628 - 1703), a French author who laid foundations for fairy tales, a new literary genre, had written a century earlier than the Brothers Grimm time:

From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wol

— Charles Perrault (1628 - 1703)

Little Red Riding Hood

Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909 | Source

Folklore and Primitive Literature

Folklore and primitive literature was another interest for the brothers. When they were both employed at a library in Kassel, they published two volumes of German legends and one of early literary history.

By 1810 the brothers produced a manuscript collection of several dozen tales. They had invited storytellers, mostly peasants, to their home and recorded the age old tales they told. Some of the "storytellers" were middle-class or aristocratic and related tales they had heard from their servants.

Wilhelm Marries

In 1825, Wilhelm married Henriette Dorothea Wild. Jacob, remaining a bachelor, lived with them and their children. Wilhelm died in 1859 and Jacob died in 1863. Jacob was buried beside his brother in the St. Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin. As in life, they remain together - two brothers who left us one legacy.

Grave Site of the Brothers Grimm

Graves of the Brothers Grimm at Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof Berlin, photo taken in 2012
Graves of the Brothers Grimm at Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof Berlin, photo taken in 2012 | Source

Enduring Legacy

Children's and Household Tales was not well received at first by society. The very early fairy tales were not acceptable for children in the opinion of most readers.

With a lot of work and modifications, the brothers adapted the tales to be suitable for children. With each new edition the popularity of the tales grew and continued to grow until the 20th century when the book had a popularity status in Germany of second only to the Bible.

The brothers had set a standard for folklore fieldwork which made them pioneers of folkloristics, academic discipline devoted to the study of folklore.

Did you know?

In 1808, Jacob received an appointment as court librarian to the King of Westphalia, Jerome I (Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte), who was the youngest brother of Napoleon I.

The Brothers Grimm

© 2015 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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